On her second album, EMA looks at isolation and overexposure in the digital age. Fortunately for us she has songs able to match her ambition.
It can be hard to feel like an individual in 2014. For anyone trying to be heard above the din, it's easy it is to feel simultaneously anonymous and ubiquitous in the era of social media. Everyone wants to make a living doing what they love and nowadays that doesn't just mean selling your art or your labor, it means selling yourself. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, autographs, interviews, retweets -- it's easy for life to become a never-ending album-cycle of self-promotion with art, commerce and personal life bleeding together and eventually spitting out some bizarre avatar of "you". Tapping into William Gibson's imagination of a hyperconnected world danging between tangible life and cyber reality, Erica M. Anderson's sophomore album, The Future's Void grapples with this vertiginous modern reality and wrestles with the evasive feeling (to paraphrase David Foster Wallace) of what it's like to be a fucking human being in 21st century America.
On this record EMA pioneers new territory as well as covers some old terrain in new ways. Does she always sound like she knows where she's going? No. But that particular brand of honest exploration is half of the album's fun. It's been widely noted that the new album is less personal than Past Life Martyred Saints, which is only half true. Those were anchored in her past growing up in North Dakota's tiny underground and finding a physical place in the world. Now that she's settled in California and part of a larger cultural dialogue, she's confronted with a reality that's less personal, less physical than her painful coming of age on the stark American plains. Despite leaving that emptiness behind, the concept of the void plays heavily into the albums new songs, with Anderson increasingly comfortable not filling every nook and cranny with noise and instead letting her songs breathe. Though this does lead to a few less-than-gripping moments on the album, overall the sense of space allows her songwriting to grow.
The main lyrical focus of The Future's Void is the disorienting cyber-reality that often dominates our lives and the disintegration of any stable sense self. On "3Jane" she talks about how she "blew [her] soul out across the interwebs" while upping the Gibson parallels to the next level, warning her fellow Millenials that "they" (whomever that might be) "know more about [you] than you do". The sense of digital intrusion manages worms it's way into unexpected places on the album, with prickles of static hovering ominously in the background of the soft piano ballad "100 Years" and her voice splintering into electronic shards during the desperate cry for human connection that is "Smoulder". That sense of being simultaneously over-exposed and utterly alone does strange things to the human social creature. Even growling opener "Satellites" longs for the simplicity of the Cold War when at least the enemy was named and the battle lines were marked by walls and barbed wire.
Still, a record devoted solely to digital paranoia and despair would be too boring and depressing to have the impact that EMA is going for here. It's the songs where she grasps for the real and nourishing elements of life that give The Future's Void the emotional ballast to stay afloat. She sings literally about that physical grasp in "Solace", which, despite it's undulating electronic instrumentation, is an affectingly personal song about the power of connection with a another human being. It's a song about finding beauty in the face of a fallen world full of echoingly poetic lines about how "we make the constellations out of the falling stars". Elsewhere, "When She Comes" slinks by with all the charm of Lou Reed at his most subversively poppy as Anderson marries a pernicious guitar hook to disturbed lyrics. Even the second single "So Blonde" feels anchored more in the world of Kurt and Courtney than today (although in true self-aware Millennial fashion, it's hard to tell if EMA is spoofing, honoring or simply hat-tipping early '90s grunge -- it's probably all-of-the-above).
This isn't to say that The Future's Void is a fully-realized masterpiece or anything, but who the hell cares? What makes this music so exciting it it's willingness to be messy and imperfect. If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it's that there's no way of bringing order to a painfully diffracted existence and increasing our ability to disseminate information is only going to make things more complicated. Take the elegiac closer, "Dead Celebrity", which is a moving exercise in honest, considered confusion. Anderson looks at our reaction to the passing of the famous, the online tributes and avid consumption of digital grief and finds it at once creepy and heartfelt, empty and profound. "Who can blame the world and me / 'cause we wanted something timeless / in this world, so full of speed?" she asks, capturing the seeming impossibility of finding lasting meaning a world that seems ever more hell-bent on disposability and impermanence. As she ponders this, the melody from "Taps" skips by, being played on an analog synth, a playful irony tossed in for both good measure and genuine stirring effect.
Everyone's 20s are a time of head-spinning change. You start them too young to legally drink and you end them with an expectation that you've maybe, kinda figured out what you're going to do with the rest of your life. For 20-somethings like Anderson, they're dealing with this decade of their lives while the rest of the world totally re-invents itself, every day looking like something closer to a sci-fi movie than most people imagined even a few decades ago. It's a lot to take in all at once and The Future's Void is an attempt to digest these new realities and somehow articulate them through song. The result is loud, jumbled, powerful and not entirely coherent. It simultaneously aims for your head, your ears and occasionally your heart and at times even hits all three. If that's not the sign of vital, invigorating music, I don't know what is.